Whisky is the quintessential Scottish tipple, only Irn Bru is as strongly associated with land of kilts! Although whiskies are produced worldwide – much in the same way that true Champagne refers only to sparkling wines from the Champagne region of France, Scotch whisky can only be named as such if it has been genuinely produced in Scotland. With a thriving industry of traditional and innovative distilleries, Scotland is justifiably revered for it’s delicious and intoxicating whisky elixirs.
Evidence suggests that the whisky industry has been established in Scotland since at least the 15th century – and the naming process that led to its eventual moniker is almost as complicated as the process of distillation itself! Fermented drinks made using cereal were generally known as “aqua vitae”, Latin for “Water of life”. The Gaelic term for this same phrase is “usquebaugh”, and over time this became anglicised to the word whisky which is so familiar today!
There are several different types of Scotch whisky, the best known of course being the classic single malt Scotch and that will be our focus back today. Scotland is divided into roughly four main whisky producing regions, the Islands, Highlands, Lowlands and Speyside areas. Each region produces whiskies with properties unique to that area, due to differences in the type of grain and the water available. We shall now examine each of these in a little more detail – with a focus on some of the best single malts each region has to offer!
Beginning in the rolling hills of the Lowlands, these single malts are generally lighter and fresher than some of their more northerly counterparts. Cereal and floral flavours come to the front due to the absence of peat used when drying the barley, and the preferred triple distillation process in this region. These are often an ideal introduction to the world of whisky to the uninitiated, as the tastes tend not be as complicated or challenging to contemporary tastes as some whiskies can be. The Glenkinchie distillery operates from only around 20 miles outside of Edinburgh’s city centre, and is a recent award winner for its 12 year old single malt, which is known for its sweet and creamy palate.
Moving to Speyside, a region once considered part of the Highlands area, but now given its own regional tag thanks to the high concentration of distilleries in this small area – over half of all those found in the whole of Scotland! With such a profusion of distilleries, there are of course huge variances in flavours, but generally the Speyside whiskies are known for their delicate and fruity taste, and are especially famed for their sherry-casked malts. These are created when the whisky is allowed to mature in a cask previously used for making fortified wine, giving the resulting single malt Scotch a more full-bodied flavour and interesting palate. Speyside is home to the famous MacAllan, widely described as one of the most perfect of all Scottish whiskies.
The Highland region comes next, and immediately invokes wonderful images of warrior clansmen in kilts and plaid, quaichs filled to the brim with glowing golden whisky, and thistle and heather covered hills– and rightly so! The romantic image of the Highlands isn’t just a dream, definitely not when it comes to whisky at least! As geographically this is by far the largest region, many different micro-climates prevail, which can affect the taste of the barley used in whisky-making. As such it is difficult to pin down a characteristic flavour for this area; with maritime influences giving a tendency towards salty, smoky flavours on the West coast, and sweet heathery tastes further North. The Dalwhinnie is the only whisky in Scotland which uses water from Lochan an Doire Uaine, in the Drumochter Hills, and their result is a honeyed and smooth single malt, with just enough spice to keep it interesting for a more well-seasoned whisky drinker. Alternatively, the Oban is a great example of a West Highland single malt Scotch, with spicy and peaty flavours along with a drier finish to show off its coastal influences.
And as we finally reach the coast, it’s only a short hop over the water to our final region, the Scottish Islands, which for the purposes of whisky making mainly concentrates on Islay. Islay malts are particularly revered among Scotch whisky connoisseurs for their complex qualities, combining peat, smoke and brine into densely flavoured whiskies that the uninitiated may find harsh or even medicinal to the tongue. Bruichladdich is a good introduction to these “peat monsters” as the flavour is much lighter than in many other examples, while retaining the characteristic taste of a true Islay whisky. For the more adventurous tippler, Bunnahabhain is an excellent choice – with a glass of this in your hand, a kilt round your waist, and the gorgeous rugged landscape of the Scottish isles before you, there’s no doubt you’ll feel truly at home in this ancient and historic land!
As such an important part of the Scottish economy over the centuries, whiskey also holds an important place in Scottish culture too. The quaich mentioned earlier is a special type of two-handled drinking bowl used to serve whisky on special occasions. Nowadays this is commonly given as a christening gift for a little boy, or a larger version as a wedding gift to symbolise that it will be a shared cup in the same way that the happy couple will share their lives. The methods of serving whisky day-to-day are also all-important; the generally accepted ways are to drink your single malt straight, or mixed with distilled water. Drinking your Scotch with ice-cubes or with a soft drink mixer is usually frowned upon, but not completely unknown. Each method will result in a different drinking experience of the same whisky, as the scents and flavours are changed by temperature and dilution rating so this is of course a highly personal choice. A good, Scottish whiskey is of course essential to take with you when “first-footing” at the New Year, and never goes wrong most other days of the year as well! In the end however, the most important thing to remember when drinking a single malt whisky, is to raise your glass, catch your companion’s eye and wish them good health in true Gaelic style – “Slainte Mhath”!
Do you have particular favourite single malt? Or perhaps you prefer a grain or blended whisky? Let us know in the comments!
Today we are going to take a look at some early Scottish history – very early! The Picts, from the Latin word for “painted”, presumed to be in reference to their body art such as tattoos, were an indigenous tribal race living in Scotland during the late Iron Age and Early Celtic Medieval periods. They are generally viewed as a mysterious and enigmatic group who have left very little other than their beautiful stone carvings behind for us to interpret. Researchers have never been able to decipher the limited amount of Pictish written language discovered, though it can be presumed they did speak and write Latin as well, due to their involvement with the early Christian church, but their own name for themselves remains unknown. Historical records describing the Picts have always been shown through another races perspective, and despite recent discoveries implying that up to 10% of all Scottish born men are directly descended from the Picts much remains unknown about them – although more is now coming to light about their art, culture and religion.
As noted above, the Picts are best known for their intricate stone carvings. Around 250 of these have been discovered around Scotland, many of them still in their original sites, mainly in East Central Scotland, where they can visited by the public. These stones show a distinctive form related to the La Téne style of artwork, with curving lines and recurring motifs such as the Pictish Beast or geometric patterns such as the double disc, or crescent and V-rod, which have not only been found on works of high art, but also on domestic items such as jewellery and bowls. Although the full meaning behind these is not fully understood, it is evident from the sheer numbers of repeated motifs that these symbols held a great deal of meaning for the Picts. Archaeologists also infer that these may also have been used on clothing and in tattoo designs. It has been conjectured that these symbols may have functioned as a type of written language separate from ‘ogham’, the runic style alphabet which was commonly used. These artistic carvings may actually represent inscribed words, such as the names of either the people who created the items, or the upper classes to whom they were dedicated.
Many of the artistic endeavours undertaken by the Picts have relevance to early Christianity in Scotland, many Christian crosses were carved with Pictish designs and scenes, one particularly detailed example is the bas-relief style cross at Meigle, Angus showing stylised animals and dating from the 9th century. Prior to conversion to Christianity however, the Picts followed a type of Celtic paganism common to many similar groups in Ireland, Wales and France at that time. The religion was characterised by a devotion to a large pantheon of gods and goddesses, as well as animistic beliefs, which is to say a belief that inanimate items such as rocks and trees are possessed of spirits and capable of being communicated with. Ancient standing stones were sometimes inscribed with Pictish art, in the same way they would later decorate Christian crosses, implying a shared reverence for some of the same sites as earlier settlements, and “axe” wielding figures on other stones have been interpreted as depictions of priests or other important religious figures. Burial rites are often examined in an attempt to understand a society; however with the Picts these are once again mysterious. Some burial sites have been located, but burial does not seem to have been a common practice, and use of items such as coffins is practically unknown before Christian conversion, and links between the placement of symbol stones and burial sites has also been elusive.
Likewise have their home settlements been difficult to identify, due in large part to the propensity for using materials such as wood and turf in Southern settlements. However, several Pictish strongholds and forts have been found, and these remains have provided a lot of information about the people who used them. Inter-family relationships were important politically among the upper classes and as a result marriage was highly valued in Pictish society. A further explanation of the symbols on stones possibly referring to the elite class members is that they may work as a family signifier, like coats of arms, and combinations of symbols could indicate important marriages among these families. The Picts were mostly a farming tribe, with depictions of cattle, sheep and other domestic animals common, and it is known that they cultivated grains and other plants for sustenance also, some particularly lovely stone engravings show hunting and fishing scenes and wild game would also have been important to tribal Picts. Although fish are shown, boats were rarely engraved – in fact only one depiction still exists of a Pictish carving of a boat! From this archaeologists inferred that sea-faring life was not very important to the Picts, but strangely it is confirmed that the Picts were in fact very adept at sailing, even building a reputation as pirates, or at other times sea-going merchants!
As can be seen, for every question answered about the Picts several more new questions crop up – and many questions will probably never be answered! In any case, what little we do know about these highly creative, industrious and successful early Scots is fascinating to say the least! The fact that through the veins of one in ten Scottish men today flows the blood of these contradictory Celts, yet we still understand so little about them and their lives is itself frustratingly captivating! So, what do our readers think? Does anyone have some more interesting historical tidbits we may have missed? Or perhaps you have found out that you are one of the “ten per cent”? As always, we look forward to your comments!